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Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lawsuit targets Forest Service's wildfire policy

The Associated Press

PORTLAND — An environmental group filed a lawsuit yesterday that it hopes will force the U.S. Forest Service to stop routinely fighting wildfires.

Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE), based in Eugene, Ore., filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Missoula, Mont., seeking a court order to force the Forest Service to prepare an environmental-impact statement on wildland firefighting that includes an examination of the toll in human life.

"The thesis of our case is that fighting fires is what has gotten us into the trouble we're in," said Andy Stahl, executive director of the group. "It's time to end the war against fire and learn to live with fire and manage it, rather than fight it."

Because an environmental-impact statement must examine social impacts, it would have to consider the deaths of hundreds of firefighters killed fighting wildfires in the past century, including 26 this year, said Stahl.

The lawsuit focuses specifically on Forest Service use of fire retardant, claiming the agency has violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to go through a public process to examine the environmental impacts.

It argues that the Forest Service violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service on the lethal effect that dropping fire retardant in streams could have on threatened and endangered bull trout and salmon.

Joe Walsh, a Forest Service spokesman in Washington, D.C., and Paula Nelson, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service's Northern Rockies Region, said they had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment.

The lawsuit includes an affidavit from Ken Weaver of Yakima, whose only son, Devin, was among the four firefighters killed July 10, 2001, fighting the Thirty Mile fire in Washington.

"It's one thing to die in the service of your country for a justifiable proper cause," said Weaver. "The problem is we've got these kids out there dying for something that is scientifically bankrupt. We are subverting nature, causing more damage than good, and we are taking kids' lives. That is just so wrong."

The lawsuit argues that wildfire is a natural phenomenon in forests throughout North America, but the Forest Service policy of trying to put out nearly all wildfires has created conditions that have produced huge wildfires in recent years.

In 2002, wildfires burned 6.9 million acres at a cost of $1.6 billion dollars, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. That exceeded the 10-year average of 4.2 million acres. Wildfires this year burned 3.2 million acres.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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